No player personifies the mix of scouting hype and fantasy production quite as well as Andrew Luck, who has been deemed the next superstar NFL quarterback since his days at Stanford, and nothing he has done since has removed that narrative.
Not even a horrific 2015 season, which many attribute to injuries and a poor Indianapolis Colts offensive line, could quiet the crowds convinced that Luck is Peyton Manning in his prime, just waiting for another healthy season. In seven games last season, Luck threw 12 interceptions and completed only 55.3 percent of his passes. His 74.9 passer rating was better than only Nick Foles and Manning.
But it's not as if inefficiency is a new thing for Luck. In fact, his fantasy value has long been driven by his volume, not his efficiency.
Among players with more than 30 games played since Luck's debut in 2012, only Blake Bortles, Geno Smith, Eli Manning and Matt Cassel have thrown more interceptions per game, and Luck is outside the top 25 in passer rating. If you prefer adjusted net yards per attempt from Pro Football Reference (and I do) as a sign of overall passing game health, he ranks 17th among QBs with 30 or more appearances since 2012, behind Foles, Alex Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
But prior to his disastrous 2015 campaign, Luck did post two very good fantasy seasons, which saw him carry quite a few of his drafters to victory. So what fueled his success, and why should we be worried it isn't something he will automatically regain and sustain?
Feasting on cupcakes
Luck and the Colts have been the beneficiaries of one of the easiest divisions in football for quite some time. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans have been two of the worst franchises in football this decade (32nd and 28th in win percentage since 2011). The Houston Texans fell off a cliff and are slowly working their way back. The Colts, on the other hand, have finished second or better in the division every season since Luck was drafted, and every year since 2001, with the exception of the year Peyton Manning sat out due to his neck injury.
If we look at Luck's stats against his AFC South rivals compared to his stats against out-of-division opponents, we can see that he has been a beneficiary of the easy schedule. Since the start of the 2013 season, which coincided with Luck's ascension to the top of the fantasy charts, he has a 97.1 passer rating and a 3.25 TD/INT ratio when facing AFC South opponents, but a 84.9 rating and a 1.79 TD/INT rate against everyone else.
If we single out just his two most productive seasons, here's how the numbers stack up:
In other words, Luck was more prone to mistakes and significantly less efficient when facing non-AFC South opposition. Efficiency is a measure of how well a player does on a per-opportunity basis, while volume is how many opportunities he receives. Multiply one by the other, and you have overall fantasy production.
But Luck hasn't been traded, and the NFL hasn't realigned, so why would I be worried?
The Jaguars are rapidly stocking up talent on defense, and should be one of the league's most-improved units on that side of the ball. The Titans have also been working to improve their defensive presence, and the Texans still have J.J. Watt, arguably the most dominant defensive player in the league.
And the NFL schedule allows for only six games in the division! Banking on solid production in six weeks from a top-50 draft choice in fantasy doesn't seem like a wise investment at all.
Even if you don't buy into these splits and think Luck's production will balance out, there's another reason to be concerned, and it's somewhat linked to the concerns referenced above about how the defenses in his division have improved.
Can the Colts keep Luck healthy and upright? Even if they can, will he be more comfortable under pressure, or will he be under pressure significantly less often?
Luck was right around league average in terms of the number of passes thrown while under pressure in 2013 and 2014, but jumped up to fourth in 2015. Clearly, the Colts did a poor job of protecting him, leading to the injuries that caused him to sit out nine games.
However, his ability to navigate the pocket was viewed as a strong suit coming out of college, and I've witnessed what "good Andrew Luck" can do when presented with a crowd of linemen in front of him. He has the vision, presence and agility to dash and slide between bodies and make good throws downfield.
But that doesn't happen often enough to provide production when under pressure. In 2015, Luck was 24-of-80 with six interceptions when under pressure, good for a rating of 24.9. Only Ryan Mallett had a worse passer rating in such situations. And while it seems unfair to pick on Luck's worst season (which is a small sample size, to boot), it's not completely out of line with his career production under pressure.
Luck completed only 37 percent of his 244 passes while facing rushers in 2013 and 2014, and earned a 54.6 passer rating. That ranked him 17th among QBs over that span, and puts him on par with names like Fitzpatrick and Chad Henne. And while Drew Brees also was ranked in this neighborhood during those two seasons, notable names like Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning all had ratings between 71 and 90 while under duress.
The Colts did invest in the offensive line this offseason, drafting a first-round center and loading up on other candidates to compete for jobs in training camp. But there's nothing guaranteeing a solid pass-blocking situation for Luck this season, and even if he gets a league-average rate of protection, he still showed in 2013 and 2014 that he's average or worse when dealing with incoming defenders.
Reasons to doubt
Even during his two best 16-game seasons, his combined numbers ranked 10th in yards per dropback, 10th in TD/INT ratio, 10th in passer rating and ninth in average net yards per attempt. He was fourth in fantasy points per game among QBs during that span, but it's clear that those numbers are driven more by volume than they are by efficiency.
Following a season in which he took too many hits and was constantly hurt or speculated to be hurt, the Colts are going to have to try something else to keep their franchise QB upright and feeling healthy.
If that means any reduction in either quantity or quality of his volume (depth of throws, instructions to throw it away more often, not being allowed to run), Luck's overall fantasy value will sink quickly.
We also have to assume that Luck's 2015 struggles were almost entirely due to injury, and that he can bounce back and continue to develop as a quarterback.
With so many strong QB options out there -- seven active quarterbacks have averaged 17 or more fantasy points per game since the start of 2013, with four above 19 -- and a few candidates poised to leap into the top tier moving forward (Bortles, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston), Luck's risk doesn't justify his ADP. Even as the QB5, being picked in the top 50, he's going 30 picks ahead of Carson Palmer, who outdid him in every way last season, as well as 10 picks ahead of Brees, who has similar concerns but performed better than Luck last season and has a longer track record of fantasy success.
You're likely taking him ahead of WR2 and RB2 candidates like Eric Decker, Randall Cobb, Golden Tate, Jeremy Hill and Dion Lewis, who play at positions that are much more difficult to fill on draft day and as the season rolls on. And while you can debate the volume or efficiency of those players all you'd like, the depth at QB compared to the lack of depth and increased roster requirements at the running back and receiver positions means I simply cannot risk Luck's volume slipping at the cost of a potentially top-10 running back or receiver.